Thursday, 2 May 2019

The beer that dare not speak its name

Go back forty years, and there were basically just three types of real ale sold on draught in British pubs – mild, bitter and old ale. Each had its own distinctive symbol in the Good Beer Guide. And chief amongst them was Bitter. The term covered a huge variety, strong to weak, dark chestnut to pale straw, mouth-puckeringly hoppy to sickly sweet, but it was all part of that same identifiable, and uniquely British, style.

Since then, sales of mild have declined yet further and it has disappeared entirely from large areas of the country. In reponse to this, brewers started renaming their milds in the belief that the term itself was offputting to drinkers. So we have Hydes brewing Old Indie, Moorhouse’s Black Cat and Thwaites Nutty Black. But now this tendency has spread to bitter as well.

At first one of the drivers of this was to give beers are more instantly identifiable presence in the free trade and in take-home sales, so instead of just Blogg’s Bitter we got Robinson’s Unicorn and Taylor’s Boltmaker. And, earlier on, it was mostly confined to beers at the stronger end of the scale, with Courage Directors, Young’s Special and Marston’s Pedigree dropping the “Bitter” and just going by their one-word brand name. But it has now extended to the classic “ordinary” bitters, such as Hook Norton Hooky, and many of them denying that they are any kind of bitter at all, often just describing as “amber ale”.

This trend has now come to the attention of beer writers, with both Martyn Cornell and Pete Brown penning pieces on the subject in recent weeks. Both of them see the undesirable flavour connotations of the word “bitter” as a major factor, but I’m not entirely convinced by that. After all we’ve been happily drinking it for decades, and “sours” have become popular in the craft world without anyone finding that terms offputting.

It is more that “bitter” carries associations, as “mild” did before it, as being something old-fashioned that your dad would drink. This was borne out last year when we went round Banks’s brewery in Wolverhampton and were told that changing the name of their Bitter to Amber had gained a very positive reaction from drinkers. At least they do still own up in smaller letters to it being a bitter, though.

However, “amber” really says nothing about the character of a beer apart from a colour, and for many bitters it is seriously misleading. This is the colour Amber as defined by the official HTML colour chart:

And this piece of actual amber, with a mosquito trapped inside, is pretty much the colour most people associate with the term.

However, that colour is pretty much that of Foster’s when it was advertised by Paul Hogan as “the amber nectar”. Most bitters are considerably darker than that, and indeed Bombardier, despite being described as “amber beer”, is in fact a dark chestnut. The term is unhelpful and misleading, and obfuscates the true heritage of the beer. Nobody ever, when asked the question “what type of beer do you enjoy drinking?” replies “Oh, I like amber ale”.

At least, round here, if you go in a Holt’s, Lees or Sam Smith’s pub, you can still ask for a pint of bitter and that is precisely what you will get. Robinson’s, on the other hand, long ago renamed their Best Bitter Unicorn, and have more recently introduced a new mid-brown ordinary bitter called Wizard, while Hydes Bitter was renamed Original, as was Thwaites.

My friend Cooking Lager recently ran a Twitter poll which showed strong support for keeping the name of Bitter.

Whether you like it or not, Bitter, while it covers a wide spectrum of colours and flavours, is perhaps the quintessential English beer style, and stands in the pub alongside other major categories such as mild, stout and lager. To try to deny its existence and break it down into a myriad of sub-styles just sows confusion and leaves drinkers adrift as to what it actually is. So maybe it’s time that brewers should be prepared so say, loud and proud, that what they’re producing is Bitter, and stop trying to suggest that it’s just some fuzzy, ill-defined category of “Ale”.

And it seems that, after years of disguise, mild is at last coming back out of the closet and declaring unequivocally what it actually is, as shown in the pumclip below for Mcmullen’s AK, a light mild that for some years was badged as a light bitter.

32 comments:

  1. For a home brewing pedant like myself, the term 'Amber' has connotations of amber malt, which you don't always want. Especially in bitter :-)

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  2. The Stafford Mudgie2 May 2019 at 16:38

    Mild might at last be coming back out of the closet and declaring unequivocally what it actually is in Hertford but not anywhere else.

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  3. Ooh - schoolboy error. It's Banks's not Bank's!

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  4. Amber as a term boils my piss. As you point out Mudgie, most beers described as "amber" aren't amber coloured. In Scotland "heavy" and "light" have more or less disappeared as generic terms. I'd hate the same to happen for bitter and mild. Down with this sort of thing.

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  5. The Stafford Mudgie2 May 2019 at 19:33

    I'm doubt if William Blogg & Co Ltd of Barnsbury, N7 actually did a "Blogg’s Bitter" as they ceasing brewing just before the First World War !

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  6. We need a coalition of #Pubmen to save the bitter!

    We can't leave it to the CAMRAs. Look at the dogs breakfast they've made of saving the mild. Every year they've been at it. Every year mild goes further down the toilet to oblivion. Kiss of death, CAMRA having a go at it.

    Pubmen Assemble !

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    1. T'other Mudgie and I are launching the campaign today in Rugby - putting the boot into the bitter deniers!

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  7. At least Sam Smiths are rather unlikely to be rebranding their stable of Old Brewery Bitter, Sovereign Bitter, Best Bitter, Light Mild and Dark Mild. Will the CAMRAs appreciate it? Of course not: They hate Sams, with it's sole cask beer, distinctively flavoured, always served from wood.

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    1. Yep CAMRA hate Sams. Hardly any Yorkshire Sams pubs in the guide yet they have loads of customers.

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    2. Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA has voted a Sam Smith's pub our Pub of the Year in two of the last three years.

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    3. I've not noticed many Sam's pubs getting CAMRA awards or GBG entries in Yorkshire, though.

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    4. Matt, your branch is clearly more enlightened than others. Sams surely is the very epitome of what CAMRA should be supporting.

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    5. Seriously? You think that the Campaign for Real Ale should be overtly supporting a brewery that produces maybe 30-40 different beers, of which exactly *one* is a real ale?

      That would be as nonsensical as vegans championing a burger chain that offers a single token vegan offering.

      Sam's do about as much for the real ale cause as Brewdog. E.g. Precious little

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    6. The idea that Real Ale is some sort of cause is the only nonsense here. A brewery that sticks firmly to tradition both in the beers it produces and its pubs, selling its admittedly sole cask beer entirely from wood, albeit from around half of the 300ish estate, is somehow failing to be something to be admired by Camra? This is why it's becoming little more than a beer tickers club.

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  8. Yes, Banks's - the same brewery that switched from "Bitter" to "Amber" - had several years earlier switched from "Mild" to "Original", but have now gone back to calling it "Mild". Go figure.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie4 May 2019 at 09:21

      David,
      But I see "Banks's Original" as often as "Banks's Mild".
      What I've not seen for a while is the plain "Banks's" which it was for a while.

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    2. Which gave rise to the ludicrous situation in pubs outside their heartland where you would order a pint of "Banks's" and end up with bitter. So what on earth were you supposed to ask for if you actually wanted mild?

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    3. The Stafford mudgie4 May 2019 at 17:21

      But “pubs outside their heartland” were only really likely to get Banks’s Bitter which would be badged as Banks’s Bitter.
      W&DB’s Banks’s Mild to Banks’s to Banks’s Original to Banks’s Mild is though a splendid example of indecisiveness and I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what it will be by the end of the year.

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    4. All the ones in and around Manchester had Mild. And I was specifically told this in relation to a pub in South Wales.

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    5. The Stafford Mudgie4 May 2019 at 21:58

      I'm getting confused now but maybe it was based on one-beer-is-plenty Pardoes when I first knew it forty-five years ago, the same pint satisfactorily being served whether 'Mild' or 'Bitter' was asked for !

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    6. Yes, one beer is quite enough :-)

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    7. The Stafford Mudgie5 May 2019 at 10:47

      - as Humphrey well knows.

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  9. My father, when he drank beer, would often order a pint of mixed. Half Mild and half Bitter. As a child I thought M&B stood for Mild and Bitter. How innocent we were.

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    1. This was very common forty years ago, as was drinking a half of draught topped up with a bottle or light or brown ale.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie4 May 2019 at 17:00

      Yes, especially down south - and it was 'flat' cask beer that needed 'livening up' with a bottle of fizz but then CAMRA came along, revitalised real ale and so it was no longer necessary.

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    3. Or half of bitter and a bottle of dark stout. My marra asked for a black and tan in 'spoons recently and was met by a blank stare.

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    4. I don't think Spoons sell bottles of Guinness. Can't say I've been looking for it, but how many other pubs still do?

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    5. Indeed. Bottled Guinness is a rare creature. But an acceptable B&T can be made with the draught variety. Or so Brian tells me. Personally I consider it the spoliation of two otherwise decent drinks.

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    6. The Stafford Mudgie6 May 2019 at 02:27

      DCBW,
      During the 1970s bottled Guinness was in just about every pub in the country but now it's in very few.
      During the 1970s bottled Guinness was bottle conditioned and was what many of us would drink if we found ourselves in a 'beer desert' like Norfolk.

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  10. The issue is complicated somewhat by the fact that 'American Amber' emerged as a fairly distinct style in its own right (despite almost always not being truly amber in colour at all) and has been not uncommon over here for at least the last 12-15 years, certainly predating the rebranding of 'traditional bitter' as amber. I think I remember Young's doing some sort of American Amber in the mid-to-late 1990s.

    The muddying of the waters is irritating as always, but 'Amber' *should* have at least a little more meaning than 'golden', which CAMRA saw fit to classify as a style. Then again, 'bitter' has now, perversely, become the preferred term for *less* bitter beers, so everything is arse over tit...

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  11. One of my favourite lines from Coranation Street.

    Barmaid: Bitter, Curly?

    Curly: Yes, I am rather.

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